London, England – Students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) have launched a campaign to include more African and non-European thinkers on their courses.
The “Decolonising SOAS” campaign aims to address a dearth in non-European thinkers on the institute’s curriculum and to more critically examine European thinkers and their ideas on race.
Administrators at the college, which is part of the University of London, have welcomed the drive to review the content on its programmes and are working with academics and students to look at what changes can be brought in.
“We’re called the School of African and Oriental Studies, so it makes sense that we include more thinkers from the regions we teach,” said Ali Habib, co-president at SOAS students’ union and one of the activists leading the campaign.
“In one course, Introduction to Political Theory, we had 28 thinkers and philosophers, of whom only two, [Mahatma] Gandhi and Frantz Fanon, were not white,” he added.
The campaign has broad backing from students, with up to 900 attending events in support of the initiative.
Undergraduate politics student Halimo Hussain told Al Jazeera that including more non-white thinkers would enrich her studies.
“A diversity of thinkers is a necessary step in broadening our world view,” she said, adding: “Whiteness is seen as so neutral within academia that when we question the relevance or importance of white thinkers it’s met with resistance by those who benefit from the status quo. “
Hussain was referring to a strong backlash from British media outlets, with many falsely characterising the campaign as an attempt to drop white philosophers from the curriculum.
In the past week news outlets including the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, RT, and the Huffington Post have published articles, which have been shared tens of thousands of times, claiming that SOAS students want to get rid of philosophers such as Plato and Descartes.
Habib said the reports, which all stemmed from the Daily Mail piece, were fabricated and no such plans existed.
“We don’t want to get rid of Kant, for example, but instead teach his ideas critically, so not to ignore his views on other races,” he said.
The articles prompted a flood of hate mail targeting Habib and other student union officials directly.
One image sent to Habib , which was seen by Al Jazeera, uses the racial slur “n*****” to describe black people and suggested they are better suited to eating watermelons than academia.
SOAS academic Meera Sabaratnam said she was concerned by how the issue had been covered by the media.
“It is deeply worrying that the students’ campaign was so thoroughly misrepresented by both mainstream and tabloid press, even after explicit clarifications were given to journalists publicly,” she said.
“This is unacceptably poor journalism, and has the effect of delegitimising these very valuable and appropriate questions,” she added.
furore has less to do with university curricula and everything to do with ensuring people of colour that speak out against racism are stepped on as ruthlessly as possible”]
Sabaratnam, who teaches international relations, said rather than remove thinkers from the syllabus, the campaign was trying to broaden the historical context in which European thinkers were studied.
Including more non-European voices was necessary, given a shifting world order she said.
“[The] world order is changing, and all societies, including western ones, would greatly benefit from a more considered engagement with knowledge traditions and thinkers from outside the traditional western canon.”
Sabaratnam’s colleague at SOAS, Kerem Nisancioglu, questioned why openly racist European thinkers were canonised while anti-racists were marginalised in university courses.
“Wouldn’t a university education that genuinely aspires to improving how we understand and engage with the world confront these questions, rather than hide from them?” He asked.
“It seems to me that this [media] furore has less to do with university curricula and everything to do with ensuring people of colour that speak out against racism are stepped on as ruthlessly as possible.”
The campaign at SOAS comes amid efforts to ensure black voices are better represented in academia.
Late last year Birmingham City University announced that it would be convening an undergraduate degree in black studies, the first of its kind in Europe.
About 92 percent of academics in the UK are white and just 0.49 percent are black according to a report by the Runnymede trust .